Yearly Archives: 2011

Residency, ramifications

I was in (rather: ON) Long Island this past week doing a sort of mini-residency.  It involved a bunch of things: conducting an all-county orchestra, working with a high school band on the piece that I had composed for them, and teaching a theory class at said high school and talking with some of the students there about various careers in music, etc.

Which was all great fun, and there’s certainly nothing more rewarding than working with enthusiastic, talented young people.  The rarest pleasure among the bunch was getting to work with a large ensemble in a collaborative environment – which basically never happens.  Band’s sort of where it’s at these days – even John Corigliano is writing articles about how much more rewarding it is for him to partake in residencies on college campuses for 2 or 3 weeks at a time and work with near professional-level students who are enthusiastic about his own music instead of writing for the New York Philharmonic who expect every piece to come as a ready-made masterwork and flatter them at the same time.

And I think he’s really got a point.  I’ll just say it: as a conductor, and especially as a composer, much of one’s time spent working with orchestras is geared towards making sure that musicians can remain lazy and uncreative.  I’m lucky, or maybe just picky, but more likely lucky, to work with really generous and engaged collaborators.  And I try my darndest to make sure that people get their money and time’s worth when they work with me, and to pay them fair wages when I hire them.  But professional orchestra rehearsals tend to be kind of the worst.  And I’ve heard very good orchestras play very good pieces totally half-assedly because the writing for their individual instruments doesn’t match up to their idea of greatness, even if the whole blows away the sum of its parts.

So, basically, Long Island was a cool place to spend a week, bands can actually sound really pretty if you write for them correctly, and it’s a shame that our musical culture doesn’t foster more creativity amongst professional musicians working in the trenches, but I suppose it just makes the ones who are genuinely interested in making art together all that much cooler.

I hate to burst everyone’s bubble,

but you know “Black Swan”?  It sucked.  Donkey.  I mean, you know, objectively.

What this film lacks is any sense of balance.  Certain works of art are painful, and that’s very necessary and natural.  But when a work is dark, it must, MUST have moments of joy and lightness in order to succeed.  “Black Swan” starts in a dark place just gets darker and darker as it goes along.

Plus, how much clunkier can an exposition get?  “You all know the story of Swan Lake…” but I’m going to tell it anyway.  Vincent Cassel was quite decent in this movie, but the script he had to work with was abysmal.  Same goes for Natalie Portman, though she did have the one really decent scene (calling her mother from the bathroom stall).

“Requiem for a Dream” was the same way, but even worse.  “The Wrestler” I thought worked much better, and that’s certainly my favorite of Aronofsky’s films.  That movie contained some redemptive moments.  One actually understood the characters and their motivations.  On the other hand, in “Black Swan”, Nina’s personal relationship with the Ballet is never made clear.

Plus, the details of backstage life were so laughably executed.  OK, I’ve occasionally heard of ballet rehearsals with a violinist present, and if City Ballet wanted one, I’m sure they’d have him.  The conductor was played by an actor, and that’s always the way of American films, and it’s really annoying.  But why was the pianist on stage during the orchestral dress rehearsal?  As a prop?  And what about this: she gets measured for her costume THE DAY BEFORE OPENING NIGHT?  I don’t think so…

The Tchaikovsky music was used rather basically.  The way in which the composer, Clint Mansell extended the ballet score into the film’s main score actually made me laugh out loud on a number of occasions.

Overall, this movie went well beyond just being naïve and childish: it was terribly vulgar in my opinion.  Egregious, and without any point.  If a piece is meant to be painful, I’d like to be able to revel in the pain a bit – sort of like when you feel a canker sore with your tongue.  This movie was more like amputating your own foot.

Let’s talk a bit more about scores though, shall we, because the score for The King’s Speech deserves mention in a particular context.  First off, I thought this was an excellent movie, the apotheosis of a commercial period piece.  And what a Period Piece it was.  Not being a historian of 20th century Georgian London, I could hardly comment on the degree of accuracy rendered in this film’s art direction, but as a spectator, I certainly noticed the meticulous level of detail, and I was suitably impressed.

So why then, when the directors are clearly doing everything in their power to evoke a certain era, is it OK to have a score that bares not even the slightest resemblance to music from the period?  Alexandre Desplat‘s score was fine, and very, very much in the mainstream film-scorey vein.  But wouldn’t it have added that extra touch of authenticity to use some Vaughan Williamsian harmonies here and there?  Perhaps a Waltonian melody?  A bit of Elgaresque orchestration?  Even an occasional boys choir or  English hymn tune would have done.

[p.s., Memo to David Seidler: “I was Glad” referenced in the film’s script as “a hymn”, is not actually a hymn – it’s an anthem.  An anthem by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Perry, if you’re interested.  And it goes a little something like this, you anti-musical beast!:


Someone with sensitivities to these things (me) actually finds an anachronistic score quite distracting, even jarring.  But maybe that’s just (me).

The most egregious example of this particular sin may be found in Kurosawa’s epic Kagemusha (1980).  Like, what?, 90% of Kurosawa’s work?, it’s set in feudal Japan “in a time of increasing lawlessness”. And the score?  Sounds more like “Capriccio Espagnole” meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

That, by the way, is the work of the Japanese composer Shin-ichirô Ikebe.  Now look, it’s not like I’m saying that a Japanese film score has to be all bamboo flutes and taiko drums (not that that would necessarily be a bad thing…), and there’s no reason why a modern Japanese film composer shouldn’t avail himself of the expressive tools of Western music. I think Toru Takemitsu did a great job in another Kurosawa epic from five years later, Ran:

Yes the opening flute solo is great, but when that’s over, it’s a Western style studio orchestra. Do you hear that subtle gong action?  Those upper grace notes in the melody?  Just little hints of orientalism, yes, but they go a long way to making this score a very effective piece.

[p.p.s. You know who they should have gotten to write the score for The King’s Speech?  Whoever it was who wrote the lush, luscious incidental music for Two Fat Ladies.  Unfortunately, this particular person remains internet-anonymous, unless it was Peter Baikie who wrote the theme song.  If it was he who composed and orchestrated this:

and this:

I will be suitably impressed.  I will also be suitably embarrassed if someone points out that those are just excerpts from, like, a really obscure Bax piece.]

New year, new things

1) Can we all just agree that these are really good examples of percussion writing?

This, because it builds up patterns in the percussion section, which is such a good way to use those guys back there.  Who doesn’t like a good percussion pattern?  Ravel’s great at it – so is Stravinsky.  And then of course, there’s all that Popular Music.

This because it’s just raucous.

Both excerpts come from a piece that’s altogether new to me: Alberto Ginastera‘s 1934 ballet Panambi, his Opus 1.  Heard it on the radio the other day, loved it.  I think it has an awful lot to do with Stravinsky, Revueltas (I’m thinking specifically of “Sensemayá“) and more than a little to do with Varèse, and Who wouldn’t like that??

2) I’ve been thinking a lot more about Gordon Jenkins.  Jenkins is the gentleman who composed the final installment of Frank Sinatra’s ill-fated “Trilogy: Past, Present, Future” album from about 1980, if I’m recollecting correctly.  I presented an in-depth analysis of this particular work here.

Let there be no mistake: I love Jenkins’ “The Future”.  It’s wacky, wild, and wet all over.  It’s easy to laugh at and laugh with (ok, at), but I’ve started to look at it more analytically.  What is it about this piece that makes it so very strange and not “successful” in the way we might normally associate that word with great pieces of music?

A composer faces many little compartmentalized tasks that we tend to take as a bundle: concept (which the composer rarely chooses in collaborative projects), narrative (be it a ‘programmatic’ or theatrical work or the emotional narrative of an instrumental work), lyrics (sometimes), style, texture, orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, melody, rhythm.  Form covers many tasks: phrase structure, song structure, movement structure, key relationships.  And how about pacing which is sort of a formal issue, but also it’s own thing.

Then there’s other things: choosing which gestures to include and when, deciding who should play what and when someone should sing something (separate from the technique of orchestrating these decisions) and deciding how the various textures should be edited together.  I suppose what I’m getting at is that composing isn’t just as simple a thing as Concept and Execution – there’s tons of mini-concepts to be conceived and executed along the way.

Because we study the great composers to the exclusion of almost all others, we sort of expect a master composer to have mastery of all these categories, but it’s really not the case.  Take Gordon Jenkins: he’s extremely good at texture, harmony, melody, rhythm, and certainly orchestration.  Form, sometimes.  Some big misfires in the style department (that is to say, in choosing the appropriate style to suit his needs, not in executing his chosen style, so maybe those are really two different departments?).  I’m guessing he was commissioned to take on the concept of “future”, but even taking that as a given, his sense of narrative is pretty Loony.  And let’s just be honest, the man shouldn’t have been allowed within a 2,000 mile radius of a lyric.  But then again, the distinctively bizarre lyrics of “The Future” contribute greatly to the charms of the piece, so don’t listen to me.

Berlioz is kind of an oddball in all of the categories, and it’s always fascinating to see where his experiments worked and where they didn’t (see: Symphonie Fantastique, mvmt. 5, m. 11 – that’s figure 61 – for a major Berlioz fail.  I’ve always contended that this is the single poorliest-composed bar in the standard repertoire.)  I’d say the same for Janáček.  Even when Shostakovitch does really well in all the categories, he often paces his large scale forms very poorly.  Tchaikovsky, astoundingly brilliant in so many categories, frequently lets the seems show between his textures and sometimes had a really weird sense of narrative and concept.  But sometimes not.

I’d be very interested in knowing if people agree with me/have other examples of composers with blatantly compartmentalized skills.

3) I just finished reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Here’s another example of compartmentalization – Mr. Franzen has profound strengths: inner narrative, complex psychological motivations, weird family stuff.  And his prose flies right off the page.  But the guy’s got a tin ear for dialogue.  The narrative is propulsive – the book has a wonderful ratio of plot events to pages invested – but the concept is kind of zany (but then again, the narrative is so good, you don’t care).

The book’s ending is a real paradox: when you reach it in context, it’s very satisfying – it’s hopeful and conclusive, and your soul ravaged from the journey, so it’s much appreciated.  But give it a little distance and it appears way, way neater and tidier and than it ever needed to be.  It’s not only cloying, but it becomes the most unlikely event after a series of extraordinarily unlikely events.

But you know what, I still loved reading the book.  And he’s got some fantastic rules for writing fiction.